Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Proto Indo European

You know, I was just thinking how hard it is to tell a story of history if you're attempting to leave open possibilities. Like, say I wanted to tell you a story about the Proto Indo European people (or PIEs), but didn't want to presume too much about a group of people we know little about or your own feelings about various Neolithic cultures in what is now Europe. I might say something like, after we started walking upright, we spread out over Africa, into central Asia, across Europe, into the Americas, and over to Australia. After some time, a group of us came out of some place--southern Russia, central Asia, northern India--and spread out over a lot of other places, carrying with us ancient versions of many of the words we now use. The existence of the PIE people has not been verified, but it's a theory that seems to fit the evidence we have--that many of our modern languages evolved from one now lost proto language, and thus, someone must have spoken that language. This is why languages as seemingly diverse as Sanskrit, Greek, and English all have similar words for father, brother, foot, etc. So, being a big nerd, I enjoy poking around in the dusty corners of words (ha, as you may have noticed) and, thus, spend a lot of time thinking about the language of the PIE people. Here's something that has recently amused me: PIE might have a word (there's definitely a root, but whether it was a whole word, we don't know) like "gher" which connotes liking or wanting. You can see it in modern words like greedy or yearn or even charisma. Bruce Lincoln thinks "gher" in the PIE world probably meant something closer to greedy or ravenous and that the sound of the word was the sound of the dogs who would scavenge the battlefields for things or dead folks to eat. Gher and grr. Tee hee. I love words that mean what they sound like or sound like what they mean. Not an onomatopoeia... well, kind of... but grr, the sound the greedy dog makes and gher the greed itself. Oh, or take barbarian, which is just a person who makes noises that sound like "bar bar," the Greeks' way of pointing out that the folks to the north talked funny--maybe like sheep.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose that explains the etomology of Tony the Tigers "They're GRRRREAT!) in relation to frosted flakes, but how does it explain his lesser known, but equally important "They're GRRRROSS!" when describing Chocolate Frosted Flakes?

Also if all IndoEuropean languages are derived from the same root source, how does that explain the differences in the way that speaker relates to the world at large via language. By that I mean in English when it is cold (now) we say "I am cold." "I" the individual is the actor. In Russian they say "mne xolodno" which equates to "It is cold to me." The weather is the actor in that phrase, which to me seems to correlate to the general passivity of Russians (a broad generalization, I know). I must confess that I am not enough of a polyglot to go any further with this example, but there are probably other examples that can be made.

Also, how do grammatical variations arise? Sure there will be some regional permutation from the mother language but English spoken in America is the same as English spoken in Canada and in England and in Scotland and even Australia. While I concede that there are differences in word definitions the rules of grammar and syntax have not changed.

The Legal Eagle

1/26/2005 05:53:00 PM  
Blogger Aunt B said...

Hmm. Good question. I'm no linguist (though the Sheik might be, and maybe he'll chime in on this), but I think there are a few possibilites. Three to me seem most likely.

One is that little regional or familial ticks that wouldn't really stand out or stick in a concentrated group (because the 'right' way of phrasing things would be reinforced) have an opportunity to codify when people are separated by distance and time. So, even though the author of Beowulf and I both speak a type of English, we wouldn't really be able to understand each other.

It's interesting to me how quickly languages mutate. I mean, look at French, Spanish, and Italian--those are all born out of Latin, which was spoken only 2,000 years ago. Or, look to our own time, with the newer Slavic languages. Are you really going to tell me that you believe Ukranian is really a different language from Russian? (Please don't fight me, Ukraine, I'm exaggerating for the sake of emphasis. Yes, yes, it's entirely different. No one who speaks Ukranian even sounds remotely like they're speaking Russian.) Fuck, I've gotten frustrated with Poles who are all like, "No, sorry, we don't know this word, pivo, refering to tasty fermented hops. We only have this word, piva, refering to tasty fermented hops, and so we cannot get you what you want, because we cannot understand you."

The second very real possibility is that the most recent theory, that the PIE people didn't come battling their way out of the steppes wiping out everyone they found on the land they wanted, but instead fucked and farmed (in addition to fighting) their way across the world. Under this scenario, it's likely that older words and grammar structures used by the locals would have been incorporated into the regional dialects of the PIE language and then into the early proto languages descending from that. "Yule," a word we now use to denote Christmas time, is supposedly one of those words, first belonging to the people the early Germanic people encountered when they came into Northern Europe.

The third option, of course, is the most likely. The PIE people, hearing about events farther south and not wanting to be outdone, built a giant tower to the heavens. God (or Marija Gimbutas, it's not clear which) destroyed the tower as a great act of huberous and confused the language (and grammar) of the PIE people so that they wouldn't be able to work together towards any more common goals.

1/27/2005 09:03:00 AM  

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